“I gave a press conference on February 5 that probably no one paid attention to,” she recalls. “I remember coming back on Presidents’ Day and it was like, ‘Whoa!’ Between that third and fourth week of February, it became increasingly clear that this was going to be a big problem.”
She didn’t say so at the time, but she feared Baltimore would be hit hard by the virus.
After all, Baltimore is a predominantly black city in a country with wide racial health disparities.
It has a high poverty rate, a large population of low-income immigrants and densely populated neighborhoods full of thousands of unemployed workers.
In addition, like many U.S. cities and counties, Baltimore has an underfunded public health system — with only about a third of the resources it needs, according to Dzirasa.
But on the way to catastrophe, something strange happened.
Baltimore has not escaped COVID-19, recording nearly 1,200 deaths from the virus. But compared to comparable areas, it has fared much better than expected.
That’s the conclusion of a September report from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, which compares Baltimore’s COVID-19 experience with 325 communities with similar demographics, including race and ethnicity, employment and health insurance.
Baltimore outperformed the majority of its peers, landing in the top percentile in various measures of the virus’ impact. The city ranks the 81st percentile for the lowest incidence of cases, the 73rd percentile for the lowest cumulative death rate, and the 97th percentile for the highest vaccination coverage.
“If you had told the story ahead of time, you would have said COVID is coming to Baltimore,” said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, who served as Baltimore’s health commissioner in the 2000s and is now vice dean at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. .
dr. Peter Beilenson, another former Baltimore health commissioner who later held the same position in Sacramento, California, described Baltimore’s performance as “surprising.”
“The racial inequality, the poverty in Baltimore — that the number of cases and deaths was so low, that’s really impressive,” Beilenson said.
The key factor in Baltimore’s success, public health experts said, has been strong leadership from city officials and support from a state government — split between a Republican governor and a Democratic legislature — that adhered to data and science rather than shutdowns, masks and vaccines.
It certainly helped that Maryland is one of the states with the lowest population without health insurance. Maryland has also embraced the Affordable Care Act, including Medicaid extension, and has a highly regarded state insurance scholarship.
“People with health care coverage is one reason we are doing so well with COVID,” said Vinny DeMarco, president of the Maryland Health Care for All Coalition, a well-known Baltimore figure who has advocated for access to health care in Baltimore and Maryland for decades.
But DeMarco and many others praised the city’s leaders, especially Dzirasa, for their steadfast and resourceful leadership during the crisis.
They said the city’s response was characterized by fidelity to data, targeted communications and a willingness to tap outside help and expertise.
During the pandemic, Dzirasa said, she has focused on “the impact it could have on those who were already marginalized.”
Those who have worked on Baltimore’s pandemic response think other places can learn from the city’s community-wide response to COVID-19.
“This is not something we would have chosen,” said Dr. Charles Callahan, a vice president of public health at the University of Maryland Medical Center, one of the key players in Baltimore’s pandemic response. “But we can definitely take advantage of it.”
Michael Ollove writes for Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts. This story is republished through the Solutions Journalism Network.